Despite an estimated one in 4 000 people being diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy in South Africa, there is still a widespread lack of understanding of the condition. This has prompted Lesley Potgieter of Edgemead, to launch a unique Aware Bears programme, which features two travelling bears with educational messages to build empathy for children with the disability.

“Cerebral palsy affects the brain and nervous system, causing physical disability in human development,” says Lesley, who was born with cerebral palsy, and suffered a stroke in 2009. “As more and more affected children are ‘mainstreamed’ into standard schools, many have huge difficulties in adapting to their new environments, whilst their peers struggle to understand and accept them.”

“Having been mainstreamed myself, I’m fully aware of the daily challenges and prejudices that disabled children face. The only way to change public perceptions of disabilities, is to expose and include them into their environment,” she says.

Lesley then came up with the idea of using two bears – Helen and Harold - to help children living with Cerebral Palsy have a smooth transition into mainstream schools and society. The bears are sent out free of charge to individual children with Cerebral Palsy for two weeks at a time, accompanied by journals on their visits around the country.

“Children tend to identify more easily with toy characters and during each visit and the Aware Bears act as a comfortable conversation focus at home and in the classroom to teach inclusion and respect for others,” says Lesley. The toys are also aimed at promoting a secure environment for families to discuss their feelings and frustrations, as well as providing moral support to children in hospitals and those undergoing therapy.

To date, the Aware Bears have travelled thousands of kilometers across South Africa, visiting 17 children with Cerebral Palsy and three schools.